Tingling down the back of your leg? Butt falling asleep when you sit too long? Shooting pain in your hip? If any of these sensations sound familiar, you just might have a common condition known as Sciatica. If so, you are among approximately 40% of the population who feel it at some point and know how irritating it can be.
But do you know why sciatica happens? Or better yet, what you can you do to relieve your sciatic pain? Let’s get into the basics of this common condition and then explore the sciatica stretches that can help.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is pain, tingling or numbness that comes from the irritation of the sciatic nerve or the nerve roots that lead to the sciatic nerve. The discomfort can be felt in the buttocks on one side, down the side or back of the leg, or even in the ankle and foot. The pain can be severe, and it usually only occurs on one side of the body.
Photo courtesy of Manhattan Pain & Sports Associates
You might not know it, but the sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in the human body. It starts in your back and ends in your toes! This nerve actually begins as a collection of nerve fibers—or roots—in the lower spine. These fibers exit the spinal canal through a number of different openings in the lower spine. Eventually all of these little fibers meet up and combine to make one large sciatic nerve that can be as thick as a grown man’s thumb at its largest point.
As it begins to travel downward from your low back, the sciatic nerve runs below your piriformis muscle, through your hips and glutes, down the back of your leg, and into your foot. If you have sciatica, you may experience pain or numbness at any one or even all of these locations.
What Causes Sciatica?
In general, sciatic nerve pain or irritation comes when something is pressing on the sciatic nerve. There are several things that can cause this, including:
- a ruptured or bulging disc
- damaged or broken vertebrae
- spinal stenosis (which narrows the spinal root canal)
- arthritis of the back
- bone spur on the spine
- pinched nerve or damage from injury
- inflammation in your piriformis muscle
Sciatica can also develop during pregnancy and in very rare cases a tumor pressing on the nerve can be the source of the pain. In general though, most cases of Sciatica will not require serious medical treatment and will resolve themselves over time with proper self-care.
Sciatica Stretches for Pain Relief
To help keep your sciatic nerve pain at bay, perform these 8 Sciatica stretches a few times a week to help relieve your pain and get you feeling great again.
1. Runner’s Lunge
Runner’s Lunge provides a deep stretch for the hips, hip flexors, groin and legs. Many people make the mistake of trying to use their leg muscles to hold the hips ups. It is important to let go and release your hips so that you can experience a deep stretch.
- Begin in a plank position with hands directly below shoulders.
- Step your right foot forward to the outer edge of your mat next to your right pinky finger.
- Lower your forearms inside your right foot and relax through your hips and back.
- Breathe and hold for 30 seconds. Switch side
2. Sleeping Pigeon
The Sleeping Pigeon takes a basic hip-stretching pose and, by lowering the chest down to rest over the top of the stretching leg, adds a deeper sensation to the stretch.
- Begin in a plank position. Tighten your abdominals and pull your right knee toward your right hand placing your right foot as close to your left hand as you can.
- Keep your back leg long and keep your hips even as you relax your weight through the middle of your hips.
- Slowly begin to lower your chest over your front shin relaxing forehead on the mat and arms stretched overhead.
- Breathe and hold for 30 seconds. Slowly lift chest up, step back into plank and switch sides.
3. Revolved Extended Side Angle (Crescent Twist)
Revolved Extended Side Angle is a standing pose that stretches the entire back, hips and ankles and strengthens the legs.
- From a standing position, step your left foot to the back of the mat and lower the inside of the foot down.
- Reach both arms straight overhead and bend the right knee to 90 degrees.
- Relax your shoulder as you continue reaching up and lengthen the back leg.
- Now draw your hands to prayer position in front of your chest.
- Keep hands in prayer as you twist left elbow over right knee, pressing elbow against the side of your leg and relaxing your neck as you gaze up.
- Hold 30 seconds and switch sides.
4. Pyramid Pose
Pyramid Pose is a deep stretch for your hamstrings and low back as well as a simple way to practice balance with both feet still on the ground.
- From a standing position, step the inside of your left foot directly behind your right foot about 6-8 inches, as if you are standing on a balance beam. Back foot is angled.
- As you inhale reach both arms high overhead, lengthening your spine.
- As you exhale slowly reach hands down to shin or, if you are able, the floor. You can slightly bend the front knee if needed.
- Let your chest rest over your front leg and relax the back of your neck. Breath slowly as you stretch your hamstring.
- Hold 30 seconds and switch sides.
5. Forward Fold
Forward Fold is a basic yoga pose that stretches the lower back and hamstrings.
- With knees soft, reach hands toward feet and hold onto your ankles or calves.
- Relax the back of your neck as you place your nose close to your knees.
- Breath gently in and out through your nose.
6. Lying Spinal Twist
Lying spinal twist helps to stretch the back muscles and glutes.
- Lie on your back and stretch one leg out long. Pull the other knee in towards your chest.
- Gently pull your knee over your leg towards the ground. Keep both shoulders on the mat while you do this.
- Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
7. Seated Spinal Twist
Seated spinal twists can help you stretch your piriformis, the muscle that sits deep into the hips just behind your hip bones.
- Sit on the floor with legs extended out in front of you.
- Cross your right foot over your left leg as near to the hip as you can.
- Wrap your left arm around your right knee and pull it toward your body. Slightly twist to the right.
- Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
8. Figure Four
The seated figure four stretch is a great hip opener, and it will also help relieve that dull, low-back ache that can come from sitting too much.
- Keep your spine straight as you place one ankle on the opposite leg.
- Lean forward toward your calf, while keeping a straight back.
- Switch legs.
Watch our sciatica pain relief video for more visuals:
Other Methods to Treat Sciatica
The good news is that for most people, Sciatica is very temporary and with a bit of patience and persistence it can be taken care of without any invasive procedures. In fact, for some people it actually goes away on its own. If, however, you want to be a little more proactive, check out some of these things that have worked for others. Just keep in mind that everyone experiences this condition in their own way and what works for one person might not work for another. It may take a few different tries for you to get it right. If, however, your sciatica persists for more than 6-8 weeks, it is time to see a doctor about getting relief in some other way.
If applied at the first sign of symptoms, ice can reduce inflammation and numb some of the sore tissue. Heat can dilate the blood vessels, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the area. A good plan is to alternate between hot and cold treatments when you first experience sciatic nerve pain.
Deep tissue massage with a skilled therapist can relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve and loosen up any tight spots. One good massage might do the trick, but likely a schedule or regular visits will make the real difference.
While massages can help, a chiropractor may also be a good bet. A chiropractor may be able to determine what the actual cause of the pain is and how to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. The best way to find a qualified chiropractor is by a referral.
Put your fear of needles on hold for just one second. A 2015 study by the National Institute of Health found that acupuncture can help treat sciatica. The NIH reports that “the use of acupuncture may more effectively relieve leg pain/lumbago and improve global assessment of sciatica when compared with NSAID treatment.”
Just as there are certain foods that can lead to chronic inflammation, other foods naturally fight it off. Since inflammation can play a role in sciatic nerve pain, it’s worth adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet! This may not completely solve the problem, but every small detail can add up to one big picture of feeling better.
Over The Counter Meds
If you’re really hurting and you need a temporary solution while you search for something more longterm, you can turn to some over-the-counter options. Non-sterodial anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen may relieve the inflammation that is causing your pain. Advil, Nuprin, Motrin or Aleve are the more common brands. Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, can also provide relief.
By far the best option to help your Sciatica is going to be stretching! My relief came through regular yoga which provided just the right stretches for my hips, lower back and piriformis to relieve the discomfort and help me feel good again. The key word in that sentence: REGULAR. You can’t stretch a few times, call it a day and expect any change to occur. For true help you will need to make regular stretching part of your routine.